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Tallha Abdulrazaq

Iran's foreign military adventures unveiled

Iran has diversified its actors in Iraq and created dozens of different sectarian militias [Getty]

Date of publication: 25 August, 2016

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Comment: Iran's formation of a 'Shia Liberation Army' demonstrates its goal of regional political and military hegemony will not be going away any time soon, writes Tallha Abdulrazaq.
General Mohammad Falaki surprised many last week by speaking quite candidly to media linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) about the fact that Iran had established a "Shia Liberation Army". 

The senior Iranian military official, said the force would be led by Iranians, but recruit heavily from non-Iranian Shia in order to wage war in Arab lands.

Ostensibly, this would be in order to further Iran's perennial strategic objective of exporting Ayatollah Khomeini's "Islamic revolution" that successfully unseated the secular Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979.

Although Iran frequently lambasts many world powers for their imperialism, it seems that, in this regard, Iran is firmly asserting itself as a regional, imperial hegemon.

Tehran's militarism beyond Iran's borders

Even in the days of the Shah, Iran has long relied on what is termed "low-intensity conflict" - the use of military force below the level of conventional warfare - to achieve policy objectives using non-Iranians.

The Shah used Kurdish separatists in Iraq to devastating effect, tying up a large proportion of Iraq's military and national resources, and eventually forcing Baghdad to sign the Algiers Accord in 1975, granting favourable terms to Iran with regards to navigation of the strategic Shatt al-Arab waterway.
Many present Gulf states should extend their thanks to the Iraqi people as a whole... for delaying the onset of mass sectarianism


Being well aware of the success of the policy of his erstwhile political foe, Khomeini continued and expanded upon the Shah's strategy once he had removed him from power. Khomeini not only ordered for the Iraqi Kurds to be resupplied and rearmed - while simultaneously killing his own Kurdish population - but he began encouraging Iraq's Shia population to rise up against the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein.

On the whole, this failed, and many thousands of Iraqi Shia fought and died in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War to prevent Khomeini's millenarian idea of a state controlled by mullahs from being exported to Iraq and beyond. Indeed, many present Gulf states should extend their thanks to the Iraqi people as a whole, no matter the sect or ethnicity, for delaying the onset of the mass sectarianism that the world can see in the region today.

However, the failure to entice a large segment of the Iraqi population to rise up did not mean that Iran was unable to attract support from fanatics, principal of whom was the Movement for the Islamic Call, better known today as Iraq's ruling Da'wa Party, chaired by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and represented in the country's highest office by incumbent prime minister Haidar al-Abadi.

The movement engaged in terrorist attacks at home and abroad, bombing the Iraqi embassy in Beirut in 1981. It was also thought to be behind the 1983 bombing of the US embassy in Kuwait.

More recently, Iran has diversified its roster of actors in Iraq and created dozens of sectarian militias, the majority of which have amalgamated under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) that are now an official military force separate from the Iraqi military. The PMF has become notorious for its use of extreme violence, committing atrocities against Sunnis, and of acting with seeming impunity.

Not confined to Iraq alone, and as per Falaki's announcement, Iran has of course been extremely active in Yemen and Syria. In Syria, IRGC commanders have defended the genocidal regime of Bashar al-Assad, and on several occasions paid the ultimate price to do so.

Iran has further made extensive and effective use of their Lebanese Shia proxy, Hezbollah, since the start of the Syrian conflict. The sectarian Lebanese force has been active on almost every major front in Syria - most recently in the battle to break the siege on Aleppo where they complained that Assad's ragtag army abandoned them to their fates.

In Yemen, Iran has directly armed, trained, financed and supplied the Houthi rebels. In fact, Iranian support to the Houthis is so critical that it is highly unlikely that they would be able to sustain their war effort without Tehran's aid. Fortunately for them, this support is unlikely to end any time soon, as Iran is bent on expanding its power over the region and it can best do this by controlling or threatening all the major sea export routes, including in the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Oman.
Iran is declaring, loud and proud, that it will continue to use foreign fighters to spread sectarian violence across the region, and will do so unabashedly


As such, Iran is now locked in a struggle with Saudi Arabia for supremacy over Yemen. The conflict has reached such levels that any backing down on either side would be perceived as a significant loss of face, so the tragic violence will continue unabated for the foreseeable future.

Still, the Houthis are a further example of how a local force have been used by Iran to devastating effect.

How does Iran benefit from the Shia Liberation Army?

In light of Iran's long and storied history of international militarism, including being an internationally recognised "state-sponsor of terrorism" since 1984, it would appear that its announcement of a Shia Liberation Army is primarily a propaganda tool.

Iran is declaring, loud and proud, that it will continue to use foreign fighters to spread sectarian violence across the region, and will do so unabashedly. Although Tehran pays lip service to cross-sectarian Muslim fraternity by calling Sunnis their "brothers", the government's use of the sectarian "Shia" identifier in their new army will raise hackles across a region torn asunder by sectarianism.

Having said that, Iran's declaration that the SLA would be led by IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani is a clear sign that Iran is moving from unofficial use of foreign fighters - or even its own brand of "jihadists" - to a more formal command structure.

Essentially, Iran has formed a force of international mercenaries that is similar to the French Foreign Legion - only this time fighting not for purported ideals of liberté, egalité, fraternité, but for the violent domination of an Iranian brand of political Shiism over the entire Muslim world.

What is important to note is that this is not merely a Middle Eastern problem, but an international one.

If Iran succeeds, the West will have a militarily and politically triumphant Iran standing in a powerful axis with Russia and controlling vast quantities of the Middle East's enormous energy resources. If that day comes, the West will be regretfully wondering why it abandoned its regional friends to their fates.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues. 

Follow him on Twitter: @thewarjournal

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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